NEWS ANALYSIS: Scholar fears choice opportunities could be smothered in higher regulation

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scholar Jay P. Greene has raised a red flag in a red state, telling Oklahoma policymakers to tread cautiously when considering tougher “accountability” measures in exchange for more school choice.

In a recent interview concerning the national “state of play” for school choice, Greene – distinguished professor and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas – said many of the regulatory models advanced in recent reforms “would hold private schools to a model that is more strenuous than what is required of public schools.”

Greene frets because, he says, “an increasing number of national school choice advocates” would settle for standards tougher than the government systems face, in hopes of moving the ball down the field for broader choice objectives.

The problem is, as he detailed in a December 3 speech to Oklahoma School Choice Coalition, that most tax-financed public education systems have few strictures for accountability, including those for pre-school and higher education. As he and other analysts have documented, “It is simply not the case that public entities have to prove they are accountable for results.”

Greene contends the effect of higher regulatory burdens “would be drive away quality and supply. It would undermine the mission(s) of many private schools.” Within the choice movement, regulatory strictures would have the effect of choosing “charters over vouchers.” For choice advocates to agree to higher regulation, he says, would “concede bargaining chips unnecessarily.”

Putting a fine point on his thesis, Professor Greene believes greater regulation is the greatest threat to school choice – and that efforts to revise the failed models of mandatory state-mandated “testing regimes” is the point of the speak for the anti-choicers.

For all the concerns he raised, in our exchange Greene said he is encouraged because school choice “is now mainstream. 

When I first began working on this, it was common to encounter the assumption that ‘experts’ and not parents should be in charge of children’s schooling.”

He continued, “There has been an amazing change in just two decades. Choice is accepted in both national political party platforms. … We’re arguing over the details. The principle has been advanced.”

The fulsome academic concluded that the greatest opportunity before the school choice cause and movement is the possibility of enacting sweeping reform in the model of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

ESA proposals come in varied packages, but share the objective of allowing parents or guardians to receive debit cards or other means through state education systems. ESAs would be allowed to finance schooling at bona fide educational institutions or vendors chosen by the consumer (students and parents) rather than the government.

A modest version of the ESA idea was House Bill 3398, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, which would have allowed up funding up to 90 percent of the sum supporting education in traditional public schools.

In 2014, Nelson’s sensible (and perhaps too restrained) measure passed the state Senate but died in a House committee.

Greene’s broad coverage of the promise of choice and the peril of regulation was well-timed for the knowledge and edification of lawmakers and citizens in our state, which has seen slow but notable growth in support for broader education options.

The most recent sounding of public sentiment was a survey released over Thanksgiving weekend which found 70 percent of respondents support choice – including 79 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats. The same survey, conducted on behalf of Americans for Prosperity, found the ESAs had an 18-point advantage among Oklahomans.

In other education-related news, another Arkansawyer – Greg Kazo of the Arkansas Policy Foundation – will visit the state in early January to share details of the problems that arose from a “tax-hike-for-education” during the Bill and Hillary Clinton years in Little Rock.

In early December, several education reformers gathered at the State Capitol building here in Oklahoma City for a press conference. They celebrated the news that Oklahoma’s latest charter school law had been recognized — by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, no less – for boosting formation of charter schools and providing “better accessibility, autonomy and accountability.” 

The measure, Senate Bill 782, was backed by a coalition of authorizers, school operators, school boards, lawmakers and reformers across the nation.

The legislation was the result of a couple of years worth of work from state Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond and state Rep. Lee Denney.

That legislation was probably a net plus for school choice in Oklahoma, but in light of Greene’s analysis that could be a debatable proposition.

Statewide, virulent foes of school choice have sustained five years of litigation against the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which has allowed parents of special needs students to use their tax resources to find the best possible schools, public or private, for their children.

The most recent attempt to drown the Henry scholarships is pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which earlier this year, in a controversial ruling, found that the basis of Western law, the Ten Commandments, could not be memorialized at the state Capitol.

As enthusiasm for school choice rises across the political spectrum, opponents remain determined and willing to spend lots of money, some of it from the public well, to reverse, cap or crush choice.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of school-age children most in need of better education remain stuck in schools based on zip code, rather than the preferences of students or parents.

NOTE: The author of three books and editor of seven, McGuigan is a state-certified school teacher who has taught at the high school and university level. He is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. This essay first appeared at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (